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Crickets, bugs, worms: It’s what’s for dinner!

Is that antennae in your teeth? Adventurous American foodies are turning to insects for a taste of the exotic, and advocates say it’s better for the environment. Even restaurants have been hawking “crittered” culinary creations — but is this a trend that’s here to stay?
/ Source: TODAY staff

Chef David George Gordon spends many of his days on the road, donning his apron and sauteing, frying and roasting fare for cooking demonstrations around the country.

His specialties? They include scorpion kabobs and orzo with cricket nymphs.

"You'd be surprised — people try it and come back for seconds and thirds," said Gordon, the Seattle-based author of the "Eat-A-Bug Cookbook" and "The Compleat Cockroach." "I once even had a kid who came back for fifths and said it was better than anything his mother ever cooked."

It's called entomophagy — the practice of eating of insects — but adventurous diners just call it good eats. People around the world have been crunching on critters for centuries, and for some Americans, eating insects isn't reserved just for the voyeuristic challenges on reality TV shows like “Survivor” and “Fear Factor.” Advocates say it’s better for the environment, and even restaurants have been getting in on the action.

"In [American] culture, we have real abhorrence of insects and their relatives," Gordon conceded. "But if you think about it, they're not so different from their aquatic cousins — shrimp, crab, crawfish."

Bug-eating created a buzz in 2008, when scientists from around the world convened in Thailand for a United Nations convention on entomophagy as a strategy to combat world hunger and a way to slow down global warming. A 2006 U.N. report found that the livestock sector generates 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions — more than what transportation produces — and it is also a major source of land and water degradation. Insects, on the other hand, provide a source of low-fat protein and cost much less, comparatively, to harvest.

"I think [eating insects] will go mainstream as we continue to waste away at our stock of fish in the oceans and continue to come up against things like mad cow disease," Gordon said.

Please pass the (grasshopper) salt
From a culinary perspective, insect fare offers a seemingly endless array of options. An estimated 1,400 species of insects and worms are eaten as regular fare in almost 90 countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Some food purveyors have taken on the challenge of incorporating insects into their menus. Vij's, a Vancouver, Canada, restaurant that renowned New York Times columnist Mark Bittman described as "easily among the finest Indian restaurants in the world," added cricket parathas as an offering. For the dish, crickets are roasted and ground into a flour, which is then used to make the spicy flatbread.

In New York, Mexican restaurant Crema uses grasshopper salt — made from dried, ground-up grasshoppers, salt and spices — on the rims of their margaritas, and they are considering expanding to include a grasshopper dish on their food menu.

"In some parts of Mexico, grasshoppers are eaten, so we wanted to do something that reflected that," said Carlos Preciado, Crema's general manager. "Some people like it and some people just think it's weird."

Preciado says the restaurant sells an average of three to five of the insect-laced cocktails each night.

Tastes like chicken?
Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant Typhoon has had insect options on its menu for more than 10 years. In addition to the restaurant's regular dishes, like Taiwanese crickets, Chambi ants and Thai-style white sea worms, Typhoon also offers seasonal insect specials like cicadas.

"A lot of people come in specifically to eat the insect options," said Jack Griffith, the restaurant's general manager. "The crickets are the best-selling item – they have an interesting texture and neutral flavor — kind of like chicken."

Griffith says that the insect dishes have gotten more popular in recent years, particularly because of food personalities like Andrew Zimmern, the gutsy, eat-anything host of the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern," who visited Typhoon for an episode of his show.

"When people see that the insects are edible, and they are cooked in way that's familiar and tastes good, there's less fear there," Griffith said.

However, the biggest draw is for people to claim bragging rights and the title of adventurous foodie, he said. "They want to show off to their friends that they ate something others find gross," Griffith laughed. "It's a chance to be exotic by eating exotic, without ever leaving home."

An ‘infeastation’ here to stay?
But will bug cuisine ever be more than a taste of adventure for meat-and-potatoes Americans?

Not likely, says food historian Gabriella Petrick.

"People might eat [insects] once, but getting it to be habitual is very, very complicated," said Petrick, an assistant professor of food studies at New York University. "Restaurants do well because it's novel, but people's food habits do not change quickly."

Cultures that began eating insects did so out of necessity, said Petrick, but with the emergence of the middle class, particularly in Asia, she predicts that more people will adopt a Westernized, meat-centered diet.

Insect connoisseurs, including chef David George Gordon, say that's exactly why Americans should hop on the bug bandwagon, because the growing demand for meat is not sustainable.

But even after all his bug-eating evangelism, Gordon shares a shocking admission: Insect fare isn't part of his staple diet. "With all the traveling I do, when I come home, I just want to eat ribs."